Billy Graham preached around the globe, but felt at peace in this tiny mountain town

Montreal College students, from left, Savannah Albright, of Greensboro, Olivia Postal, of Lenoir, and Kaitlyn Gurley, also from Lenoir hung their hammocks next to the Lake Susan spillway on campus Thursday. (John D. Simmons | Charlotte Observer)
Montreal College students, from left, Savannah Albright, of Greensboro, Olivia Postal, of Lenoir, and Kaitlyn Gurley, also from Lenoir hung their hammocks next to the Lake Susan spillway on campus Thursday. (John D. Simmons | Charlotte Observer)

MONTREAT, NC (Bruce Henderson/Charlotte Observer) - He circled the globe preaching a gospel of hope and salvation. But for six decades, until his death this week, the Rev. Billy Graham found his own peace inside the arched stone entry to a tiny town tucked into a mountain valley.

Montreat, 20 miles east of Asheville, was created at the turn of the 20th century as a religious retreat.

It's the home of the Presbyterian Montreat Conference Center, private Montreat College and about 800 year-round residents who live on steep streets that wind into the rhododendron. A couple of thousand summer visitors join them each year.

There, Billy and Ruth Graham raised their five children in a close-knit community which served as a buffer from an outside world that demanded more and more of the evangelist.

"The mountains were a safe place, and a soothing place, where they could recharge and people would protect them here," said Sally Pereira, a lifelong family friend. While Americans mourn a silver-haired preacher behind his pulpit, Pereira remembers her beloved "Uncle Billy" in jeans and mismatched socks.

The Grahams had been married at Montreat College's Gaither Chapel in 1943. Ruth Graham's parents, Presbyterian missionaries, had settled in the little town and so did the Grahams.

Years ago, Graham and his late wife Ruth were often seen walking through the community, and the famed evangelist often preached there. In recent years, the aging couple were seen less frequently.

Montreat's residents "respected his privacy and protected his privacy," said Mayor Tim Helms. "Just knowing he was in the community was special to us."

Visitors who asked for directions to Graham's gated, mountainside home were most often advised to drive in the wrong direction. Former President Barack Obama was among the line of prominent politicians who successfully wound their way to the home.

But Montreat and the nearby towns of Black Mountain and Swannanoa were also where Graham's ministry formed a team bonded as close as family, their children attended school and the Grahams were involved in civic life.

Over the years the couple maintained close ties to Montreat College, raising money for a library named for Dr. Nelson Bell, Ruth Graham's father, and helping the college win accreditation as a four-year school. Ruth Graham served on the college's board for nine years, and son Franklin Graham graduated there in 1974.

The Grahams were regular folks, Pereira said: "Just like an old shoe."

Pereira is the daughter of the late T.W. Wilson, who grew up with Graham in Charlotte and became his indispensable associate at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Wilson and Graham were among five young men who knelt and prayed in a Charlotte cow pasture one fateful day.

"They just wanted God to raise up a preacher to lift up the world," Pereira said. "And out of that came Billy Graham."

Pereira, who worked in Graham's personal office for 11 years, remembers an unassuming preacher who wore jeans and golf shirts and loved Cracker Barrel and Bridges Barbecue in Shelby. Graham insisted that staff members, not the famed evangelist himself, lead daily devotionals. "He'd say, no, I want to hear you," she said.

For years, Pereira's late, 6-foot-4 husband wore suits passed down by the lanky Graham. The Rev. Jerry Pereira was buried in one of those suits in 2003.

The ministry was so close, she said, that "Uncle Cliff" was the association's longtime music director Cliff Barrows, who died in 2016. "Uncle Bev" was the renown gospel singer George Beverly Shea, who sang at Graham's crusades – and at Pereira's wedding – before his death in 2013.

"It was like Uncle Billy was waiting for his team to get to heaven before he went home," Pereira said.

Savoring Privacy

The Grahams seemed to savor the privacy of Montreat after traveling the world, said Catherine Peterson, 96, who was among their oldest friends.

Peterson, who's called Kitty, and Graham were both born to missionaries in China, went to high school in North Korea and attended Wheaton College in Illinois. After serving as a missionary in Japan for nearly 40 years, Peterson and her husband retired to Montreat in 1986.

"They came to our house for dinner," she said. "I think they enjoyed being with close friends. They both loved music. I think they liked most of all being with their friends and being at home and being with their family."

The Grahams had initially lived in a house across the street from Ruth Graham's parents. That changed when tourists started peeking through their windows.

Ruth Graham told of seeing young daughter Ruth, known as Bunny, once running up to the tourists with a cup to collect fees for talking about their home life. "And that of course was when Ruth said we have to move," Peterson said.

Lasting Memories

While most local people allowed the famous evangelist his privacy, Graham left lasting memories among the fellow Buncombe County residents who encountered him.

The Rev. Dan Snyder, worship and senior adults pastor at First Baptist Church in Swannanoa, remembers the Sunday in the 1980s when Graham slipped unnoticed into a pew. His cover didn't last long.

"The buzz got around that 'Dr. Graham is here, Dr. Graham is here,' " Snyder recalled. Then it was pointed out that it was Graham's birthday. Snyder, who was then the church's music and youth minister, led all 300 congregants in singing "Happy Birthday" to their famous neighbor.

"They never sounded better," said Snyder, who later shook hands with Graham and still treasures the worn hymnal the evangelist signed with scrawled blessings and a reference to Philippians 1:6.

Betty Robinson, who lives in the nearby community of Swannanoa, went to public school with two of the Graham children, Ruth and Franklin. She remembers Graham speaking at Ruth's eighth-grade graduation, and that he gave New Testaments to each child and shook every hand.

"He didn't talk down to you, and he was a very attentive listener," said Robinson, who with her husband now ministers to drag racers. "He had us pumped up – and he gave us (the New Testaments) what he was talking about."

While she later heard Graham speak many times at Montreat, Robinson also knew that he also got his hair cut in Black Mountain like other local men and liked to eat with his family at a favorite seafood restaurant.

"He was just one of us, who happened to be on TV preaching the gospel," she said. With his death, she said, "he closed his eyes here and opened them again in the presence of the Lord. Can you imagine?"